June 04, 2013

The Shakes

Early Sunday afternoon we were preparing to leave Xitou Forest after a nice long walk in the woods. We had spent the night in the lodge and were a little sore and ready to make the 90-minute drive back to Taichung and begin another week of work. The kids were in the backseat and the doors were closed, but Maggie hadn't put the key in the ignition yet.

Suddenly, I felt like I was six years old again and my brother Peter was standing on the rear bumper of the family Chevrolet station wagon, bouncing it up and down on the springs. Wondering how the hell Franklin could be making the car shake so violently from the inside of the car, I turned my head to the right to look back at him.

Before I turned all the way around, I saw that the writing on the mini-bus next to us was rolling up and down with at least six inches of amplitude. About this time I became aware of the sound of the bedrock below us growling more persistently as the shaking increased in intensity.

I looked at Maggie. No one had to say "earthquake." We looked around. The hotel in front of us was about 20 meters away behind a stand of bamboo and pine trees. If there had been some place to run, we might have, but the car seemed to be our best protection against falling wood so we waited it out.

The sound of an insistent and continuing crash reached us inside the car. I looked towards the entrance of the park expecting to see a hotel fall across the pavement, but it never happened, and I realized it must have been a landslide. It sounded distant.

It only lasted about 30 seconds, but the shaking seemed to go on for much longer as all the quarks in my being regained their equilibrium leaving me with a strange uneasiness that lasted for several minutes. I stepped out of the car, wobbling slightly on steady ground, and looked around the parking lot at all the other wobbly people looking at me.

There were no shouts, no panic, just a brief reprieve from business as usual. I walked to an information booth and tried to ask if there had been any major damage, but the girls just smiled and said, "We're okay." When I turned to go back to the car, I scanned the ridge line just below the clouds and saw that the mountain face had slid off leaving a triangle of cleanly shaven rock with some traces of dust lingering in the wind.

Our car joined the line of cars from parts unknown deeper in the mountains headed to other parts unknown further down or out of the mountains. The first place we came to was the township of Lugu. I had hoped a cup of coffee from the local 7-11 might calm my nerves a bit, but when I got to the door, I saw that it was blocked by shipping crates and that the whole store smelled like it had been on a bender. There was a pile of chocolate on the floor and the back wall was shore to a sea of beer. 7-11 was closed. Never in my life have I seen such a thing. Never will I forget. I've lived through 13 typhoon seasons and never has nature closed down 7-11. 6.3-6.6 degrees of magnitude will do that.

The roads were packed and movement was sporadic. There were no signs of any major structural damage as far as I could see, but there were several boulders the size of basketballs along the sides of the roads and chunks of branches being knocked about by car tires.

Further down the mountain, there were more convenience stores in cleanup mode, in fact whole communities, it seemed, were out sweeping up debris. Tea shops, souvenir stands, and furniture stores were all still standing with no visible damage to their structures, but inside, the damage was obvious and costly. Bookshelves, and display cases lay at odd angles with contents spilled out upon the floor. Small mountains of broken porcelain stood outside some places, and man-sized pieces of treated red cypress formed a ruck inside others.

When I saw the first ambulance, I told myself that it could be a coincidence; there have been ambulances in the mountains before. The second ambulance was almost as easily brushed off, but eventually, when nine of them had come and gone, I realized that some people emerged from the afternoon with more than wobbly knees to speak of. By the side of the road, amongst a pile of broken pots and planters, an elderly woman was having her head attended to by a young man. In a lodge in the town where I'd drunk a beer the evening before, a man lay dying of a head wound.

This isn't the largest Taiwan in living memory for much of the population. I arrived a few months later than the 7.6 temblor that struck the same area as the one yesterday. I am perfectly happy to have not experienced a 7+ quake, and these smaller ones are more than enough to begin a new round of "So-when-ya-comin'-home" questions from the family in hurricane-, wildfire-, and tornado-prone parts of the US.

The time has not come.

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